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The Sea and Surfing
Page 2 of 2 (13 Questions and Answers)

1311. Lunar gravity is partly what causes oceanic currents. If we had more than one moon orbiting Earth, what [if anything], would happen to the oceans? — MS, St. Charles, Missouri
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While the moon's gravity is the major cause of tides (the sun plays a secondary role), the moon's gravity isn't directly responsible for any true currents. Basically, water on the earth's surface swells up into two bulges: one on the side of the earth nearest the moon and one on the side farthest from the moon. As the earth turns, these bulges move across its surface and this movement is responsible for the tides.

If there were more than one moon, the tidal bulges would become misshapen. That is essentially what happens because of the sun. As the moon and sun adopt different arrangements around the earth, the strengths of the tides vary. The strongest tides (spring tides) occur when the moon and sun are on the same or opposite sides of the earth. The weakest tides (neap tides) occur when the moon and sun are at 90° from one another. Extra moons would probably just complicate this situation so that the strengths of the tides would vary erratically as the moons shifted their positions around the earth. Since the timing of the tides is still basically determined by the earth's rotation, there would still be approximately 2 highs and 2 lows a day.


1393. In one of your answers, you said that the "water on the earth's surface swells up into two bulges: one on the side of the earth nearest the moon and one on the side farthest from the moon." Can you explain why the water bulges up on the side farthest from the moon? — ST
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To understand the two bulges, imagine three objects: the earth, a ball of water on the side of the earth nearest the moon, and a ball of water on the side of the earth farthest from the moon. Now picture those three objects orbiting the moon. In orbit, those three objects are falling freely toward the moon but are perpetually missing it because of their enormous sideways speeds. But the ball of water nearest the moon experiences a somewhat stronger moon-gravity than the other objects and it falls faster toward the moon. As a result, this ball of water pulls away from the earth—it bulges outward. Similarly, the ball of water farthest from the moon experiences a somewhat weaker moon-gravity than the other objects and it falls more slowly toward the moon. As a result, the earth and the other ball of water pull away from this outer ball so that this ball bulges outward, away from the earth.

It's interesting to note that the earth itself bulges slightly in response to these tidal forces. However, because the earth is more rigid than the water, its bulges are rather small compared to those of the water.


1414. If two planets were really close together and you were between them, how would the gravitational force affect you? — MB & Class
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If you were directly between the two planets, their gravitational forces on you would oppose one another and at least partially cancel. Which planet would exert the stronger force on you would depend on their relative masses and on your distances from each of them. If one planet pulled on you more strongly than the other, you would find yourself falling toward that planet even though the other planet's gravity would oppose your descent and prolong the fall. However, there would also be a special location between the planets at which their gravitational forces would exactly cancel. If you were to begin motionless at that point in space, you wouldn't begin to fall at all. While the planets themselves would move and take the special location with them, there would be a brief moment when you would be able to hover in one place.

But there is something I've neglected: you aren't really at one location in space. Because your body has a finite size, the forces of gravity on different parts of your body would vary subtly according to their exact locations in space. Such variations in the strength of gravity are normally insignificant but would become important if you were extremely big (e.g. the size of the moon) or if the two planets you had in mind were extremely small but extraordinarily massive (e.g. black holes or neutron stars). In those cases, spatial variations in gravity would tend to pull unevenly on your body parts and might cause trouble. Such uneven forces are known as tidal forces and are indeed responsible for the earth's tides. While the tidal forces on a spaceship traveling between the earth and the moon would be difficult to detect, they would be easy to find if the spaceship were traveling between two small and nearby black holes. In that case, the tidal forces could become so severe that they could rip apart not only the spaceship and its occupants, but also their constituent molecules, atoms, and even subatomic particles.


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